Colin Dayan is the Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University.
She’s written extensively about Haiti and Guantanamo Bay and has written not one but two memoirs.
Colin chatted to me about her memoirs and how, if you spend a lot of time engaged in one type of writing to pay the bills as Colin did with academic writing and research, you should still go ahead and try on a completely different form of writing.
After all, who knows where you’ll end up in 10 or 15 years, and by exploring different genres and formats, you could build a writing career that lasts a lifetime.
I asked Colin about her research process, and we dig into how she approaches researching memoir versus writing something for an academic and formal audience.
In this episode, we discuss:
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Colin: Don’t let anything hold you back when you first start writing. Just write it out and don’t stop to read and judge it. I’d say you have to write at least three pages that first day and let it go and then you look at it.
Introduction: Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: A memoir is more than just a chronology of your life.
Hi, there. My name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast. Years ago, when I was in school, our teacher used to give us this exercise that I loved. We’d get back after a long break and she’d say, “Now, guys,” I went to an all-boys school, she’d say, “Now, guys, I’d like you to write a 500-word essay about what you did on your summer holidays.” I always loved these essays.
I enjoyed them more than my math homework or my history or physics homework and I used to get good marks in them. When I started writing non-fiction, when I got into personal essay writing, and later when I tried to write memoir for the first time, I thought this was how you would start a memoir. I thought that you would begin with something like, “I was born in 1981. I was the oldest of three children and x, y, z,” but that kind of writing bores readers and I know sometimes when I pick up a memoir, if I read that, I’ll normally skip through those chapters to get to the good bits in the work.
You see, a good memoir is often framed around a subject, a theme, or an idea and this is a topic that Marion Roach Smith, who I interviewed on the podcast some time ago, also talked about. She said a memoir usually has an algorithm or a framework that underpins it that captivates reader’s attention.
The algorithm-framework Marion gave me goes a little bit like this: It’s a story about whatever the topic is, as illustrated by x, to be told in y. When I was considering my latest book, I used the algorithm to come up with this: It’s a story for young and new dads, as illustrated by my experiences becoming a dad unexpectedly at just 24 years of age, to be told in a story-driven book.
Now, since writing this book, I’ve wanted to talk to other authors to understand how they approach their non-fiction and particularly their memoir. This week’s interviewee is one person who’s doing just that.
Her name is Colin Dayan. She’s an accomplished academic. She’s also written extensively about Haiti, about Guantanamo Bay, and she’s written not one but two memoirs. And she also uses a singular subject to give her memoir a framework or a context: that’s her love of dogs. Now, my key takeaway from this interview with Colin Dayan is that, if you spend a lot of time engaged in one type of writing to pay the bills, like Colin did with academic writing and research, you should still go ahead and try on a completely different form of writing, because who knows where you’ll end up in 10 or 15 years’ time and exploring different genres and different formats would help you build a writing career that lasts a lifetime.
Colin Dayan has written many different books during her career and we dig into that in this week’s interview. I also asked Colin about her research process, because, as an academic, she brings a level of rigor and analysis to her writing which I think writers of other genres and disciplines can learn from, and we dig into how she approaches researching memoir versus writing something that’s for a more academic and formal audience.
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Now, let’s go over to this week’s interview with Colin Dayan.
Bryan: Colin, I wanted to talk to you because you are a non-fiction author who’s written across many different genres, but before we get into that, would you be able to introduce yourself to listeners and explain how you became a writer?
Colin: Oh, well, I started when I was in Atlanta growing up, I used to do a kind of writing of the day with pictures, and it was mostly crosses and tombstones, that kind of thing, very morbid writing. I came across it not long ago in a box when my mother passed away.
And so I wrote a lot about death then and I always thought of myself as a writer but I became an academic and always did this writing kind of on the side but I was more interested in prisons and prison law so, for the last 20 or so years, I’ve been writing about — well, then, about Guantanamo, and then about solitary confinement and indefinite detention in the United States so it’s something that, you in Ireland, know something about certainly, indefinite detention.
So, all of my recent work was about forms of punishment in the United States, the death penalty, and then, when I moved from the East Coast back to the South, now, 15 years ago, I ended up being so kind of unbalanced by the nature that I began to write differently and I began to write what seemed to me to be a journal but they became these two memoirs, In the Belly of Her Ghost and Animal Quintet.
Bryan: And Animal Quintet is your latest book.
Colin: It is the latest. But one thing you should know is that, originally, there wasn’t an Animal Quintet and In the Belly of Her Ghost. Originally, it was one book called Blue Book and the two things were together so the Belly of Her Ghost is mainly about my mother and, as you see, the Animal Quintet is about my mother but only — and Lucille, the woman who raised me, but animals are at the forefront.
These two things were put together in Blue Book and the editors decided to separate them. So, I always feel that I should say that because, in a way, they should be read together, the two books, but —
Bryan: It’s interesting you say that. I interviewed an author some time ago who wrote a quintet and it was five books released as a series. Is that your plan or do two encapsulate the series?
Colin: No, the two really encapsulate it. I am writing another small book about my last dog because it’s a kind of eulogy to her written in her voice, Stella. She was a pit bull and wonderful and died a very terrible death about two years ago. She had a brain tumor which I didn’t know about.
But, otherwise, I’m going back to work on case law and I’m working on something — I don’t know if you all have this, of course, you must have, a practice called forfeiture? It’s an ancient practice where people who get arrested lose their property. It’s an ancient kind of practice that I think is abolished in England and Ireland. I don’t think that —
Bryan: I don’t think we have it in Ireland.
Colin: Yeah, but they held on to it in the United States and it’s a way of getting — when the police arrest you, you do not need any kind of jury or any kind of court case, you don’t even need evidence, it’s just the word of the police and they take your car, they can take your house, so that’s what I’m working on now.
Bryan: For good? Do you get it back?
Colin: Oh, very rarely. You can go to court and then that’s a big deal but you rarely can get it back because there aren’t any real witnesses, it’s your word against theirs. It’s one good way for the police department to make a lot of — to make some money, right?
Colin: So, it’s a failsafe way of getting a kind of stipend at every traffic stop and it usually affects mostly African Americans and people of color.
Bryan: So, I know you’re quite a distinguished academic and you have written a lot in academia. Does the subjects of your research for academia inform your non-fiction books and how you pick topics for your books?
Colin: That’s a great question. I think only — in my so-called academic work, I wrote a lot about Haiti and I lived there for a while and I worked on Voodoo, the religious practice, and there, animals were always at the front, the forefront. So, I began in Haiti to be interested in animal life and what I call the visceral as opposed to the rational.
So, I think even in my early book, Haiti, History, and the Gods, I think animals were always present, the nonhuman, because the gods that possessed you are nonhuman. So, I’m fascinated and I have been for a long time, either in writing straight on about the nonhuman or about the way in which personhood is taken away and one is dehumanized.
They’re two separate kinds of subjects but, in the end, I’m interested in how we reproduce taxonomies of the nonhuman as forms of punishment and I’m interested in the nonhuman as another way of life, another way that one could possibly find an alternate manner of being and I look to animals, the nonhuman, as examples for another form of life but I think that’s hard to get across because I think animal rights organizations are not quite what I’m doing. It’s not about rights so much as actually understanding, another way of knowing, which comes from the gut and not necessarily reason, human reason.
Bryan: So, you’ve also combined your non-fiction, which is based on a lot of research, with exploratory essays and I guess that would have led to your memoir. How do you approach writing a personal essay?
Colin: How do I approach it? Well, In the Belly of Her Ghost, it takes a very different kind of work. Basically, it’s not much of an approach. I like to get up very early, as you see, and I get up and that’s the first thing I do is begin to write and it really is, as creative writers have joked with me, creative writers who teach creative writing, they have found it hard to understand that, for me, it really is a kind of hit or miss experience in that it either works or it doesn’t and I know immediately when I’m writing after a page whether it’s going to go. I’m not a great revised.
It has to kind of come out and, usually, I know from the first few sentences if it’s on the right track. So, there’s a lot of stuff in the bin thrown out before I get going.
Bryan: Are you writing your academic essays and also your personal essays on a computer in Word or do you have some other system?
Colin: Oh, it’s always Word and it’s always directly onto the computer.
Colin: Yeah, always directly onto the computer, definitely.
Bryan: So I love hearing how non-fiction authors research their books and, in particular, organize their research. So, how do you approach organizing all of the many papers that you would have read?
Colin: You know, that’s, again, a really good question. In the old days, when I was writing, let’s say, like the Poe book or the Haiti book, there was actual research, certainly going into the libraries in those days and reading, you know, in the rare book room old natural histories of Haiti and I would organize it.
As I wrote, I would keep a separate file for the texts that were the main ones being used, but, for the last, as I say, 15 years, I haven’t been doing as much research as before, in that when I started with the prison work, it was more ethnographic. I was like an anthropologist going onto the scene, interviewing the people who were in solitary confinement.
They made exceptions then in Arizona, which was rare for me, to actually be able to interview some of the people who are in 24-hour lockdown and that was the beginning of the prison work. I could also interview the people on chain gangs but, again, this was notes and no extraordinary research. I read materials that had been written about imprisonment and, certainly, in the backs of those books about the prisons, there’s a bibliography for practices like of punishment but my actual writing doesn’t have — you know, I referenced people who’ve come before but I’m not necessarily using other writing. I think that’s what’s most exciting about what I’ve been doing recently, the last 15 years or 20 years.
I really write — it was veering over to writing without the ballast of academic background and usage of other supporting things and I’ve been lucky because the books did okay without — they broke out of the academic sphere and crossed over. So, that was my dream, actually.
Bryan: How did you find the balance between knowing how much research to put into your books that weren’t written for an academic audience versus actually giving them a bit of credibility or substance?
Colin: Oh, so it’s always credited in the back but I’m not actually like using it within. For any writer who’s writing about forms of imprisonment and even animal studies, so to speak, there’s so many people who have come before so you do want to mention, and sometimes their names appear within the text but, mostly, I’m trying to find another way of writing and I’m not sure how well that works but Animal Quintet was really, I hoped, a form of writing that anyone could read, anyone could pick it up, and you wouldn’t have to have a lot of training to read and the reason I turned away from academic writing is because it became something I thought that was just for the few who had mastered certain terms. It got more and more complicated with, let’s say, literary criticism.
So, I wanted to write in a voice that was accessible and I hope I’ve done that, you know, to write in a way that anyone could, you know, really pick it up and go with it.
Bryan: When you are writing a memoir, like the Animal Quintet, did you have old journal entries that you were able to go back and read or is it all memory?
Colin: No, memory. Always by memory. It’s odd. In my iPhone, I had forgotten, I had had all these little text-type things that I had been writing and I didn’t discover them until after I had finished the Animal Quintet. The only thing I will say that was actual and before me in Animal Quintet was my mother’s photographs and my father took many photographs and the book has some of them. Those photographs became what would have been research, so to speak. Those were the documents. I began writing both In the Belly of Her Ghost and Animal Quintet by remembering my mother and, I mean, I didn’t realize she was going to become the haunt of two books but she kept appearing in different ways and the memory of the South, you know? It’s so strong, my memory, and it all came back since I’ve been here, for better or for worse, and it just bursts through other kinds of writing and so it’s kind of like Breton talks about automatic writing. Actually, it is the first thing that would come into my mind in the morning when I sat —
Bryan: When you sat down to write. When you showed some of your work to either subjects of your books or to people featured in the memoir, what was their reaction?
Colin: Well, that’s, again, a good question because of Facebook, people that I thought I had been out of touch with for many years, in Atlanta, Georgia, where I have never returned to live since I was 16. Once I went to college, I only visited my mother there and I didn’t stay in touch with people because my memories of Georgia were not good ones.
So, they got in touch with me, the daughters, let’s say, or the sons of friends of my mother. They were surprised because it’s not the mother they knew. My mother went by the name Frenchie because she spoke only French when she moved to Atlanta but they said they don’t — they didn’t know all this. It was like a revelation because it’s mostly my personal memory, it’s a private, a kind of private book. I mean, it’s not something that people on the outside would have been aware of. It’s a memoir in that way —
Bryan: Did you find you had to change anything after you got reactions or feedback from those people?
Colin: It was already published.
Bryan: Oh, it was too late. You just published it. Okay.
Colin: Yes. I did think about it but I don’t think anyone comes out poorly. I mean, it’s a general — I speak generally about Southern women and I think that people here in Nashville where I’m living now, they’re Southern and they’re women, I think they might have taken it, you know, more seriously but no one’s confronted me with it here. But I wouldn’t care. I never change my writing.
Bryan: It’s a good approach. Good approach. So, if somebody’s listening to this and they want to write their first memoir, are there any tips that you could offer them after writing two?
Colin: Yes, I would, and we were beginning to speak about this. Don’t let anything hold you back when you first start writing. Just write it out and don’t stop to read and judge it. I’d say you have to write at least three pages that first day and let it go and then you look at it. That’s the biggest advice because I think we all, when we’re writing something personal, take it to heart and we compare it with other people’s writing and we try to change too much and it never really gets off the ground.
But what I’ve seen teaching creative writing to students is that the minute you tell them, write your story. I’m not asking you to write a research paper, just write your story. The writing moves. Everybody, I believe, can write once they let themselves go into it. I’ve seen that.
Bryan: So, when I first started writing non-fiction, personal essays, it felt a bit like something you would write after you went on a summer holiday and a teacher gave you an assignments and you would write what I did in my summer holidays. But a memoir needs to be more than that. So, how does an aspiring memoirist pick a subject?
Colin: Well, I think you would have to say, when you sat down and you were just writing about your summer holiday, what are the things that you couldn’t say to anyone during that summer holiday that now are coming back and you want to share. I do think that the memoir is always a transgression. That —
Colin: Yeah. That it has to be seen as crossing bounds that are not allowed. It’s coming up from within and I think we have so many protective years in place that we stop ourselves so that’s why I say, you know, a good bourbon, drink…that’s probably why Faulkner always drank. And I do think that one has to have fun letting things out that they wouldn’t typically let out if you were just telling your parents about summer holidays, you know? I don’t know if that helps but I do think that it’s fun just to write without thinking about exactly how it’s going to affect other people. I never thought of that. People have asked that, you know? I wouldn’t have been writing it. But let me also say that I write a number of things that have gotten me in danger.
Bryan: Oh, really?
Colin: Yes. For example, the Israeli-Palestinian so-called conflict. I write about Gaza and I write about what has happened there since 2011 and 2014, I’ve published, I got hate mail and death threats because the assaults upon Gaza by the Israelis are, in my opinion, from everything I’ve read and all you have to see, are atrocious. So, I will come out and say that I have gotten, you know, strong —
Bryan: And how do you handle — like that’s more than trolling, that’s something even more extreme. How do you handle that?
Colin: Well, actually, the first time when it came out in 2014, they were threatening to actually come to the university and I remember I got in touch with the then chancellor at Vanderbilt and he said, “Don’t worry, we’ll be there.” I mean, that was in 2014. Now, I think, Canary Mission, which is the secret organization, we don’t know who’s in it, but they go around to track Americans who write about or write in favor of the Palestinian.
Bryan: Okay. I’m not aware of them.
Colin: Well, it’s good, don’t get aware.
Bryan: So, I’m also curious about your editing process for a memoir. I’m completely on board with writing several hundred words a day, don’t stop, don’t edit yourself, keep going, get it out of your head, so then you have a big, meaty first draft, 70,000 words. How do you decide what to take out and cut?
Colin: Oh, I just meant you just do three pages and read it out —
Bryan: Oh, I meant if you did that for four months.
Colin: — pages that first day to get started. No, then, if the stuff is good, you keep it and you continue. If it’s not, you start over again. I’m saying that you don’t expect to have too much on the first day, that you limit yourself to like, you know, no more than five pages. Just to let it stew, because I believe that the beginning is the most important. The way you start determines what follows.
Even if it gets thrown out, it’s really valuable those first pages, because I think that all of us, and I’m sure you’d agree, we have, in our bodies and in our minds, the memories that we want to share and it’s just a matter of letting them come out, dredging them up, in a sense, and once they’re out, then you really have the whole, you know, surface of things that you can walk over and choose and write about. I can’t say why I turned — I think it was because of the animals in my life. I felt that I — that to just do another research book about the legal case law, let’s say, case law against animals and stuff, wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to try to get somehow into their form of perception, into their way of looking at things because I think that human reason can sometimes block things so that maybe that’s why I feel that I say things that are not necessarily acceptable to many people in Atlanta.
However, it’s written from the point of view that comes from within meaning. It’s not cerebral but it’s trying to get at another world of knowing. And I don’t know if that’s clear.
Bryan: It sounds like you’re suggesting the aspiring memoirist should pick a theme or a subject that they’re preoccupied with and frame their memoir around that so, for you, it was your life with animals and dogs.
Colin: Yes. And, again, it began in a more, let’s just say, note about observing animals, the nonhuman, and observing the extinctions that are going on here in the United States against various forms of wildlife. So, as these extinctions went on, as people were killing hawks and wild boars and stuff, I began to be interested in the lives of those things denied life by humans and that’s what really began it.
And then, of course, pit bulls are — there are these campaigns against them so it’s an impossible task, I think, but it’s an important one to try to open a space for what we sometimes harm and ignore, the nonhuman, and so I used to write about personhood and now I’m writing about animality instead.
Bryan: So, Colin, I understand you teach legal and religious history, 19th century American, French, and English literature. You also mentioned that you teach creative writing. Are there any specific exercises or techniques that you give to your students that work quite well?
Colin: Yes. As we were saying, the most important is to just write every day, that’s the biggest thing, and get to the desk, and I think Hemingway said this, you don’t leave the desk until you’ve written a page or more and you don’t look at it right then, you go, you have your coffee, you have —
Bryan: Or your bourbon.
Colin: — and then you come back and you see it, but it’s really important to get down those first thoughts. I think people will be surprised that when you take off the editing hat and you let it move, there are things that can be retrieved. For me, at least, the stuff that might have been thrown away, there’s always something in that garbage that’s very valuable. And, again, I had a crutch when I was writing these two books, especially Animal Quintet. As I said, there were photos that I had found that my father took of my mother in a bullfight. For me, discovering those photos was rather traumatic, having never seen them. It was a whole life that unfolded before me and that’s how I wrote. I wrote from the photographs that are in the book. They got reproduced.
Bryan: They were a type of writing prompt.
Colin: That was the writing prompt.
Colin: Because it was stuff that my mother had put in a box and that I hadn’t seen so it was a way of knowing her life even though she wasn’t any longer here.
Bryan: Okay, that’s a good approach. And, finally, any suggestions for somebody who’s writing across genre, like you’ve done throughout your career?
Colin: I think that one thing that was that I’ve always liked and quite a few people are experimenting doing this now is within the same work, mixing genre. For example, texts that have poetry and prose. Some long poems, for example, are now introducing within the poetry prose passages, news clips. I think the montage idea is really exciting because we’ve been taught that there are these specific genres and there’s a lyric mode and there’s the prosaic and I think that the two oppositions need to merge and come out as one work and come together and so I like that notion of an ensemble and mixture. Again, the transgression against separate genres, that’s what I would like. I don’t think I’ve yet attained it but I think that’s what that mixture is really exciting.
Bryan: Creativity is all about combining old ideas in interesting ways.
Colin: Yes, the things that you would usually separate. I think, as Poe, Edgar Allan Poe, used to say and I didn’t understand it, he would say, “There’s nothing new in the universe. It’s all about combination, combining things that have never been combined before,” and, you know, now, years later, I realized that it’s true, that that might be the true creativity, to take the given and those things that don’t seem to go together and then bring them into one space.
Bryan: Colin, it was great to hear about your books and your autobiography. Where can people read it or where can they learn about your work?
Colin: Oh, they can find it out if you Google “Colin Dayan” and there’s some reviews and, you know, it’s, of course, Amazon is the great behemoth where all the works are, but Google, you know, is a great way to come across the — as my mother would say, whole kit and caboodle.
Bryan: Thanks, Colin.
Colin: Thank you very much.
Bryan: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. If you did, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store or sharing the show on Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you’re listening. More reviews, more ratings, and more shares will help more people find the Become a Writer Today podcast. And did you know, for just a couple of dollars a month, you could become a Patreon for the show? Visit patreon.com/becomeawritertoday or look for the Support button in the show notes. Your support will help me record, produce, and publish more episodes each month. And if you become a Patreon, I’ll give you my writing books and discounts on writing software and on my writing courses.